East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta, who won the 1996 Nobel peace prize after years of campaigning against Indonesian rule, conceded defeat on Monday in his bid to win a second term and congratulated rivals set to face off in a second vote in April.

Francisco Guterres, from the main opposition Fretilin party, and Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, the former army chief and guerrilla leader, were the two leading candidates in the first-round vote, according to electoral commission data.

The president of Asia's newest and poorest country plays little role in policy but is vital in projecting stability after a bloody struggle that led to independence in 2002 and scattered violence around parliamentary elections in 2007.

After 84 percent of the vote had been counted, Guterres led narrowly with 128,266 votes or 28.45 percent, while de Vasconcelos had 113,553 votes or 25.16 percent. Ramos-Horta was in third with 80,291 votes or 17.81 percent.

I congratulate the two candidates who continue into the second round, Ramos-Horta said at a news conference.

Life in the capital, Dili, got back to normal on Monday with shops and government offices reopening after a three-day break for the election. Results were due late on Monday or on Tuesday.

Economics has been the dominant issue with voters as the former Portuguese colony, occupied by neighbouring Indonesia in 1975, struggles to unlock its substantial offshore gas reserves.

The reserves are the object of a dispute with Australia's Woodside Petroleum, which heads a consortium of firms developing the Greater Sunrise project gas field.

It wants to use a floating LNG plant, while East Timor wants the plant built on shore to create more jobs.

An estimated 41 percent of Eat Timor's 1.2 million people live below $0.88 a day, according to the World Bank, and malnutrition is a significant problem.

NOT QUITE AS UNIFYING

Ramos-Horta, who survived an assassination attempt in 2008, had said he wanted to retire from politics and only agreed to run in late January after a petition from supporters.

He fell out with Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's CNRT party last year thus depriving him of its support, which he had enjoyed in the 2007 presidential election.

East Timor, the eastern half of an island at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, became independent in 2002 after nearly two decades under unpopular Indonesian control.

If he becomes president, Guterres, known as Lu Olo, would likely favour a cautious approach to economic management.

His rival de Vasconcelos, known as Taur Matan Ruak, has said he wants to introduce conscription, said Australia-based political expert Damien Kingsbury.

The two men are not quite as unifying as Horta, he said, adding that who Horta's supporters vote for in the second round would determine the outcome.

Ramos-Horta shared the Nobel prize in 1996 for working for a peaceful solution to the East Timor conflict. He spent years working to end Indonesian rule and speaking our abroad for the opposition.

He became East Timor's first foreign minister after independence in 2002.

(Reporting by Tito Belo and Olivia Rondonuwu; Writing by Matthew Bigg and Michael Taylor; Editing by Robert Birsel)